Photo of the Month: Autumn Slab of Gold

Photo of the Month: Autumn Slab of Gold

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Backcountry Jaunts

Sometimes you just want to have the stream to yourself. Around here, that usually means a hike and the longer the better. On some of our smallmouth bass streams, those hikes don't have to be as far. Those streams rugged nature and difficult fishing means that they aren't buried in people like some trout rivers are. On the other hand, if you head to the Clinch River on a weekend morning, you better bring your own rock to stand on. 

The Great Smoky Mountains fall somewhere between these two extremes, although on some days it can feel awfully crowded these days. Not all that many years ago, you could fish just about wherever you wanted to most of the year. Those days are long gone or at least on an extended pause. Thus, if you want some semblance of a backcountry fishing experience, you better plan on walking. 

A couple of weeks ago, my buddy and fellow fly fishing guide Pat Tully and I trekked into the Smoky Mountain backcountry for a few hours of fishing. This wasn't the longest hike I've ever done to fish in the Smokies, not even close in fact. However, at over four miles, we were far enough into the backcountry to have rather high expectations. As we finally broke through the brush that separates the trail and stream, we were filled with anticipation of a good day ahead. Crimson bee balm brightened the scene even further.


I was already rigged and ready while my buddy Pat still had that task to do. Thus, I quickly eased into the first pool and made a few casts. A couple of wild rainbows inspected the fly, but overall they were surprisingly skittish. Or maybe I should have said suspiciously skittish. Backcountry trout are supposed to be pushovers. That's why we go to all this effort anyway. Still, the day was young and my expectations high. Moving up to the next pocket, I didn't expect much since it was fairly small. When I was greeted with no fish, I just assumed it was too small of a spot.

The third pocket had some potential but was also smack dab in the middle of a big sunny patch. When I drifted my flies through just right, one quality fish made a beeline for my flies before backpedaling and disappearing in the direction it had approached from. Things were definitely looking strange. 

By this time, Pat was rigged and ready so we started to leapfrog. Somewhere around this time, I finally got a small rainbow on my dropper nymph. Then, as I was sneaking past Pat to get to the next spot without spooking his fish, I saw my first clue in the form of water drops on the rocks. Paying careful attention, I found a few more. This was a person (or creature anyway) that knew how to move in water. The tracks were not obvious nor definitive. They could have just as easily been an otter as a human. Still, between the shy trout and the marks on the rocks, I was convinced we needed to adjust.

After consultation with Pat, we decided that the thing to do was to move to another nearby stream. That is always a good choice when it is feasible. We were lucky to be in an area with so much water. A short walk put us on some different water. While it wasn't fast and furious, we were soon finding enough fish to confirm our decision as the correct one.

Backcountry streams in the Smokies all fish similarly but each with its own unique character. These particular streams both have long sections of flatter water with some really great quality plunge pools mixed in. The flatter water is conducive to the occasional brown trout, but the majority of the residents are rainbows. Brook trout also turn up from time to time, becoming more numerous not more than a mile or two upstream from where we were fishing. On this day, I was destined to catch just rainbows, but some of them were memorable. 

We appear to be in the middle of another big fish cycle. Maybe not as much on the brown trout, but definitely on the rainbows and maybe brook trout as well. This is due in no small part to the multi year high annual precipitation event we've had for the last 3.5 or 4 years now. We have lost at least the majority of two age classes for the brown and brook trout due to high flows in the fall and winter. Rainbows have been impacted to at least some extent. The benefit is that we are now seeing some better than average fish. this is part of the natural ebb and flow of life on these streams. Some years the numbers are through the roof, but fish seem to average 5-7 inches. Other years the numbers seem slightly impacted, but the average size is a legitimate 8 or 9 inches.

The fishing was good but somewhere short of phenomenal. Those rare days where every fish seems to be eating any fly on the first cast don't come along too often, but on this day, fish would at least eat if the drift was right and you showed it to them a few times. In fact, I was surprised at how many drifts it took in some pools. 

One particularly good hole was producing lots of hits, but few hookups. I have always caught several fish in this pool and expected no less on this day. My buddy Pat was somewhere just downstream, so I had time to relax and really work the pool. My first several casts produced strikes but no fish. Yes, everyone misses fish on occasion but this is especially true in the Smokies. Eventually, I finally hooked one and realized the problem had been as much the small size of the 5 inch trout. Those little ones eat and also spit the hook back out the fastest making them tougher to hook than the nicer trout. 


Slowly I worked into the head of the pool. Throwing my dry/dropper rig right into the fastest water started yielding more promising takes. I think it was after the second or third trout to hand that the nice fish came up and all but ate my dry fly. Realizing that it was a trout I really wanted to hook, I settled down to show it as many different angles as possible. Finally, several casts later, it happened with the dry fly diving hard into the current. When I set the hook, I was attached to the big fish of the pool. Big on these streams usually means 8-10 inches. 

The fight was fairly short lived. Soon I was admiring a gorgeous wild rainbow that was clearly the top of the pecking order in this pool. I let the rainbow rest in my net while I fished the cellphone out of my pocket. A quick picture and the fish was back swimming in the pool again. These fish are too special to harvest, so all of mine go back.


Right as I looked up again, I noticed something interesting. Way over on the right side of the pool was a small current that curled around some rocks and over a shallow, rocky bottom before rejoining the main flow in the middle of the pool. It was the sort of spot I would generally ignore, especially with the bright sun overhead. Still, what I had seen was definitely a rise, and I'm a sucker for rising trout.

I worked some line back out and made the long cast and a quick mend upstream since I was fishing up and across the current. The correct move would have been to carefully cross the stream and fish from the right side, but I'm always up for a challenge. Right before the line started to drag in the middle of the pool, the dry fly slowly sucked under. I knew it had to be the rocks on the bottom, but out of habit, I set the hook anyway. This was one of those times that I was probably more surprised than the fish on the other end as a gorgeous rainbow exploded out of the water. 

I quickly fought the trout and repeated the process from the previous trout. In the net, rest, a quick picture, then back into the water to enjoy another day. Neither fish was out of the water more than a few seconds. Both will be healthy and there when I return unless someone else harvests them.


 

At this point, we had probably been fishing a grand total of an hour or so between the two streams. Certainly no more than an hour and a half. I was getting antsy though. With a newborn at home, I've been finding more and more excuses to get home fast at the end of a day. We continued leapfrogging upstream, but I had already caught my fish and was thinking more and more about getting back home. At this point, I was enjoying watching Pat catch fish as much or more than catching them myself. One particularly nice fish had me asking for a picture and he obliged. 


Finally, after one last really nice pool, I decided to take my leave. Pat was planning on fishing a little longer, so we parted ways, and I hit the trail for the hour walk back out. Getting back home in time to fix supper and relax was nice on my day off.


Lately, I've been getting the itch for another backcountry jaunt, perhaps with the backpack and making it an overnight. Then again, I might just spend more time at home. Either way, I enjoyed this opportunity to get into the Smoky Mountains backcountry for myself that is becoming rarer these days. Hopefully it will happen again soon!

2 comments:

  1. David
    Great read, just wondering what weight-length fly rod do you use when fishing those mountain streams?
    Do you ever fish Cades Cove? A buddy of mine in my local gym told me the other day he landed a few rainbows in the 8 to 10" size in early July there but it was crowded. . Thanks for sharing

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    Replies
    1. Bill,

      I use a lot of different rods in the Park depending on the day and my mood. My favorite small to medium stream rod is an 8' 4 weight slow action rod. That said, I believe the most effective tool for most streams in the Park is a 10' 2 or 3 weight rod.

      I fish Cades Cove a little, but over the years I have stayed away more often than not because of the traffic and crowds. The fishing can be good though!

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